By Stephen Silver
Watching diners rise up to hug their waitress following their meal isn’t exactly a common site at most local restaurants. But that was the case, over and over, throughout the day on Monday, June 6, the final day in business, after 32 years, for the Midtown II Diner at 11th and Sansom streets.
It’s one of the last of Center City’s old-style diners, and Monday represented a sad day for employees and regulars alike.
“My thoughts are, ‘I’m screwed,’” said a waitress named Marlene, who has worked at the diner for the last five years, but worked there for even longer in a previous stint. “I’m resting tomorrow,” she said. “The rest of the week, I’ll decide what I’m doing.”
The Midtown II opened in 1974 and as a 24-hour diner, it served as everything from a breakfast place for neighborhood folks to a late-night destination for those pouring out of nearby bars and clubs. In that time, the Midtown persevered through numerous changes to the city and neighborhood around it.
The restaurant was owned for its entire existence by 67-year-old Greek-American proprietor Gus Hionas, who had arrived in the U.S. just a couple of years before opening the Midtown and two other Center City diners bearing the same name. Hionas, who declined to comment, spent most of the restaurant’s final day ringing up the register himself and thanking customers, some of whom he joined in their diner booths.
A rather large crowd visited the diner on the final day, a mix of older neighborhood regulars and Jefferson employees; the booths and tables were largely packed by lunchtime.
“These people are the greatest,” said an 82-year-old regular named Paul who added that he’d been going to the diner for at least 10 years; he joked that he’d been making moves on all the waitresses for all of that time.
Another regular customer, who called himself Russell and said he lived two blocks away, estimated that he went to the restaurant five days a week and called going there “a great big part of my life.” He noted that the diner was a wonderful space for creating memories.
According to local media reports, the closure of the diner followed a series of events that included dozens of health code violations, an early-February Inquirer story detailing those violations, and bankruptcy proceedings connected to an unsuccessful real estate investment by Hionas, leading the owner to throw in the towel in late May.
The diner is based in a multifaceted part of Center City- abetted on one side by Thomas Jefferson Hospital, and on the other by the Gayborhood. While the inevitable onset of gentrification has been delayed, it has finally arrived. Center City’s first full-sized Target store will open next month at 1128 Chestnut, about a block away, and multiple other construction sites are in various stages of progress within the vicinity.
The Midtown III diner on South 18th Street, operated by relatives of Hionas, is Center City’s only remaining old-school diner.